Understanding Atrocities: What’s Really Going On In The Central African Republic


It’s difficult to blame the international community for the prolific number of comparisons between the current crisis in the Central African Republic and the Rwandan genocide. There are parallels to be sure, and the “never again” mentality of activists and governments alike has drawn from the mythos surrounding the failure to act in Rwanda for two decades now. But we’re looking to the wrong crisis of the 1990s in doing so. What’s going on in the Central African Republic is not akin to genocide as what occurred in Rwanda. A more accurate comparison at this point would be to the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia.

At present, it’s difficult to overstate the wanton violence being captured on the streets of the capital city, Bangui, and other areas around the Central African Republic. Last week, reporters were witnesses as an army ceremony turned into a lynching. The body of the man — accused of being a former member of the rebel forces that deposed the government almost a year ago — was set ablaze after being hacked apart. Peacekeepers from the African Union nearby did not step in to intervene, leaving the man to his fate.

Since fall of last year, the warning bells have sounded, detailing the worst-case scenario in the aftermath of the marauding rebels and the subsequent rise of the neighborhood militias designed to combat them. “We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion and my feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other,” U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng told reporters in late October. “If we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring in the Central African Republic.”

Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned

With that in mind, it’s hard to find fault in groups like Human Rights Watch — or reporters for that matter — for seizing on Dieng’s comments, wanting to draw as much attention as possible to the atrocities that are taking place in Bangui and other areas around the country. Talking about the potential for genocide does just that, as the word — rightly — elicits strong emotions in readers, pulling up memories of the Holocaust’s millions dead. In focusing on what the CAR is not, however, it makes it easy to ignore what it is. And what it is is starting to look like a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.


That’s the conclusion that Amnesty International reached in a new report issued earlier this week. “Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic,” said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. “The result is a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.”

It’s also a fact that the United Nations itself is beginning to acknowledge. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday spoke of the “unspeakable proportions” of the situation in the CAR. “Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing,” he warned. “There have been indiscriminate killings and massacres. Shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity have characterized this violence.”

While there are certainly similarities to between the two types of mass killings, the difference lies in how the perpetrator is willing to go to see their goals through. Unlike genocide, ethnic cleansing focuses not on the utter eradication of a people, but their removal from a given area. “The expression ‘ethnic cleansing’ is relatively new,” the first interim report of a U.N. Security Council-established group assembled to examine the Balkan situation of the 1990s read. “Considered in the context of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, ‘ethnic cleansing’ means rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” The group later expanded the definition to a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Also like genocide, the process is illegal under international law as a crime against humanity, the U.N. group determined. In recent years, this has been codified in the form of the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court. Among the many other issues that constitute a crime against humanity includes the “deportation or forcible transfer of population.” Given the Court’s ability to prosecute individuals rather than governments, and the investigation that the ICC Prosecutor just opened in the country, it is surely a term that is going to be heard frequently over the coming years.

The use of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” is itself relatively new, hearkening back to the early 1990s. In 1994, the Balkans region of Europe were one of the most highly watched and fretted over areas in the world. In the backyard of the West, fresh off of its Cold War victory, Yugoslavia was dissolving, with the slew of successor states battling for independence or to keep the country united. Serbia struggled for years to keep states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Croatia within the federation without strongman Josef Tito or the guiding force of communism. As these new states struggled with their identity and freedom, it came at the cost of removing from their borders any one who was “other,” rendering formerly mixed communities as enclaves of Serb, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim alone.


The United Nations was meanwhile stricken with how to react, only recently removed from the U.S.-led debacle in Somalia. Complicating matters for the international community at the time, but providing an opportunity for comparison in the present day, is the fact that Rwanda genocide happened almost simultaneously with the crisis in the Balkans. When violence exploded in the former Belgian colony, it moved at an unprecedented pace with Hutus killing Tutsis in huge numbers, over 800,000 within weeks. In contrast, the violence within the former Yugoslavia was more of a slow-burn. The atrocities committed in the name of making a home for one ethnic group and one group alone were on a smaller scale, but atrocities nonetheless.

Because the fact remains that even if the analogy isn’t perfect — where the Serb-dominated Yugoslavia was attempting to maintain a grip on its territory, the CAR is attempting to rebuild after a disastrous rebellion, among other factors — — what we’re seeing in the Central African Republic tracks far more closely with the concept of ethnic cleansing than genocide. Following the disbanding of the Seleka rebel group earlier this year, the mostly Muslim fighters took out their boredom and desire for profit on the civilians of CAR — who are mostly Christian. The backlash came in the founding of the anti-balaka — or “anti-machete” — militias that sprung up to protect their communities, but have now turned their rage onto the Muslim minority within the country. “Muslim civilians are now extremely vulnerable,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned in late January. “Many are being pushed out of the country, alongside ex-Séléka, and are now fleeing, mostly towards the Chadian border.”

The flight of the Muslim minority has not stopped since interim president Catherine Samba-Panza took the reins last month. She appears to have reached a breaking point, however, as on Wednesday she declared war on the anti-balaka. “They think that because I’m a woman, I’m weak. But now the anti-balaka who want to kill will themselves be hunted,” she said in a speech.

Still, despite the force behind Samba-Panza’s declaration, the earlier mentioned killing of a Muslim youth has yet to warrant an official response from the Central African government, despite taking place just following an event Samba-Panza officiated. Nor did the uniformed soldiers receive any sort of public punishment that has yet been reported despite being clearly identifiable in numerous photos. These conditions make it all the easier for crimes against Muslims to continue, as civilians begin to suspect government complicity, compelling them to take flight for the safety of them and their families. Already whole neighborhoods of Bangui that were once majority Muslim are now emptied out.

The violence is not, however, unidirectional — nor has it ever been. To illustrate that point, the Washington Post on Sunday reported a story of a Christian youth killed in a lynching by a Muslim mob; he was unarmed and his parents now worry about the revenge killing that will stem from their son’s death. It’s that cycle of violence, death and reciprocation, that has made the CAR so continuously unstable for the last year. Already more than one million Central Africans have been forced to flee the violence, abandoning their homes in hopes of saving their lives. The international community is still struggling to provide a renewed sense of security, leaving the distinct possibility that the Central African Republic may be a country purged of Muslims.

Photo: Muslim civilians flee Bangui, escorted by Chadian soldiers // AP Photo/Jerome Delay